Barely six months after Gov. Jared Polis signed a landmark transportation funding bill, the governor seeks to temporarily undo a key provision: initiating a 2 cents-per-gallon fee on gasoline.
His proposal has Republicans, who all along blasted the fee increase, accusing Polis of cynically copying their messaging in an election year. Democrats say that delaying until January a scheduled increase in this fee — effectively a tax, most in the Capitol acknowledge — doesn’t compromise any climate-action goals and is consistent with their longstanding objective to help people, and especially those who are struggling, save money.
The bill Polis signed in June, SB21-260, is set to go into effect this summer and projects to raise more than $5 billion by 2032. Democrats and a small crew of Republicans who backed the bill celebrated this plan as a historic achievement. At one point they held a packed press conference in the Capitol foyer, at which Polis emphasized, “It’s time to fix our damn roads!”
The reason for this enthusiasm? This bill promises a huge increase in transportation funding over previous years when legislators repeatedly tried and failed to create significant and reliable new funding streams for roads and bridges, public transit and non-vehicle projects like bike paths.
The gas fee is integral to this plan, with SB21-260 promising to raise it by 2 cents per gallon this year and another one cent annually through 2028. Analysts projected that these penny-sized increases would add up to $1.6 billion by 2032.
Democrats said, and say now, that the increases are so small that drivers will barely notice them. Republican lawmakers and political operatives have spent the better part of a year campaigning vigorously against it; when the GOP unveiled its “Commitment to Colorado” agenda this summer, it did so at a Denver gas station.
Polis is now — for the moment — opposed to this increase, too. He’s proposing a slew of fee reductions and banking much of his election messaging on cost savings.
“Look, what the legislature, as part of the bipartisan transportation bill decided, is that over time, gas tax will be adjusted for inflation,” he told reporters on the Capitol steps Monday. “What I think we can all agree on now is now is not that time. When families are struggling to keep up with costs, now is not the time for the gas tax to keep up with inflation. If that’s a good policy in the long term to help make sure that we have less traffic, and roads and bridges, that’s a fine thing. But now is not the time. Let’s show people relief at the pump.”
Democratic leaders in the legislature, including the lead sponsors of the transportation bill, are prepared to go along with the governor’s proposal, which will need approval through the state budgeting process in March and April.
“Now suddenly Democrats claim that they want Coloradans to keep more of their hard-earned money in their pocket,” Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Douglas County said at a press conference Wednesday, mockingly adding, “We look forward to their support.”
Transportation is now the biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions of any sector in the state. Climate activists have long argued that Colorado needed to recognize and combat this by taxing, and in some cases actively discouraging, driving in single-occupant vehicles in particular. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who sponsored the transportation bill, said delaying implementation of the gas fee says nothing about Democrats’ climate commitment.
“The couple of pennies of the gas tax was not meant to say, hey, we’re going to make gas two cents per gallon more expensive, therefore you’re not going to drive anymore. No, it was to raise revenue. Because Utah has a 50-cent gas tax, and we have a 28-cent gas tax and it doesn’t go up with inflation. It was purely about revenue,” he said.
His Senate co-sponsor on the bill, Democrat Faith Winter of Westminster, is one of the fiercest advocates for urgent climate action in the legislature. She spent all of last session battling the governor’s office on climate policy. With billions in federal stimulus money bolstering the state budget, and with Congress having passed a new infrastructure spending package that will send billions to further assist Colorado’s transportation efforts, the state can afford to delay the gas fee without delaying climate action, she argued.
“We have unprecedented resources from the federal government that at this time we should use first before we ask our citizens” to pay extra, she said. “We can meet our climate goals with the resources we have right now, and the gas fee was about resources and implementation.”
Republicans say the timing is curious. Polis is up for re-election in November, and many sitting lawmakers are on the ballot as well. They don’t buy that Democrats are serious about saving people money when a transportation law that relies on increased fees is not even a year old.
“Affordability isn’t just a talking point to Republicans,” Weld County GOP Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer said Tuesday.
Fenberg said Republicans have had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate they’re serious about lowering costs. The GOP was nowhere to be found when Democrats last year moved to reduce health care costs and costs for renters who might be at risk of eviction. Fenberg said that Democrats might well be OK with some of the GOP ideas for this session, including eliminating sales tax on food and allowing some renters relief on income taxes.
But, he said, Republicans never floated these ideas to Democrats ahead of the session. He thinks that indicates they want to make a point more than they want to actually pass legislation.